March 31, 2006

The end of livestock

The science of tissue engineering and the development of in vitro meat may one day, hopefully, result in the end of livestock.

And with it, the end of unnecessary cruelty to non-human animals, a decrease in the frequency of animal-to-human borne diseases (which is like, all of them), the alleviation of environmental degradation caused by animal farming, and an end to unhealthy, unclean, hormone-ridden and antibiotic laden meat.

Humans eat 240 billion kilograms of meat every year. Imagine how many animals that represents. Now imagine each of those lifetimes as they are individually experienced: caged, crammed, frightened, diseased, poked, prodded, neurotic, psychotic, and all followed by slaughter. Don’t think so? Read this, this, this, this, and this. And then watch this.

Then there’s all the cropland, water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy required to produce animals for the killing floor. And what about the millions of tonnes of manure and other waste produced every year in North America?

As Jared Diamond noted in Guns, Germs, and Steel, humans have been consistently traumatized by the continual spread of diseases, which in virtually every case has been spawned by human-to-animal contact (predominantly the result of maintaining livestock). Current health and pandemic risks such as mad cow and avian flu are all heightened as a consequence of animal farming.

Moreover, with the introduction of in vitro foods, in vitro meat products would be far healthier than the real thing. Cultivated meats would be engineered to be healthier and cleaner.

In vitro meat is still meat in every sense of the term. According to Wikipedia, the process is as follows:
Meat essentially consists of animal muscle. There are loosely two approaches for production of in vitro meat; loose muscle cells and structured muscle, the latter one being vastly more challenging than the former. Muscles consist of muscle fibers, long cells with multiple nuclei. They don't proliferate by themselves, but arise when precursor cells fuse. Precursor cells can be embryonic stem cells or satellite cells, specialized stem cells in muscle tissue. Theoretically, they can relatively simple be cultured in a bioreactor and then later made to fuse. For the growth of real muscle however, the cells should grow "on the spot", which requires a perfusion system akin to a blood supply to deliver nutrients and oxygen close to the growing cells, as well as remove the waste products. In addition other cell types need to be grown like adipocytes, and chemical messengers should provide clues to the growing tissue about the structure. Lastly, muscle tissue needs to be trained to properly develop.
In vitro meat, referred to by some as laboratory-grown meat, is animal flesh that has never been part of a complete, living animal.

According to a recent Globe and Mail article, scientists can grow frog and mouse meat in the lab, and are now working on pork, beef and chicken. Their goal is to develop an industrial version of the process in five years. It will be at that point that we can say a viable threat exists to the ongoing presence of animal farming. And at the very least it will certainly make the presence of livestock that much less justifiable.

That being said, it will be a struggle to convince people to eat synthetic meat over the real thing. Most people who have ethical issues with eating meat are already vegetarians--so devout meat eaters aren’t really listening. And it’s doubtful that die-hards will give up their tried-and-true meat over an artificial and likely inferior-tasting product.

Perhaps it’ll take the death of millions and millions of people from avian flu for people to start questioning meat eating culture.

One last thought: if there are any arguments from anybody that in vitro meat is still somehow unethical or demeaning to an animal, they seriously need to rethink things. A chunk of tissue grown in a petri dish is as far removed from an existential, emotional, and conscious creature as is a rock.

That being said, I can already hear the howls of outrage...

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Anonymous said...

This issue could be the perfect example of James Hughes' new political axis in action. The stereotypical environmental left will be split in two by this idea. One side will be fundamentally 'creeped out' by 'playing god
and growing meat in vats, while the other will be encouraged by the possibilities of the new technology to solve all the problems you mentioned. It'll be very interesting to watch this play out over the next couple of decades. Thank you for the detailed write-up!

Dale Carrico said...

I'm with you on this one, George. Posted something to CybDem along these lines a while back, Scratch a Vegetarian, Find a Cyborg. It's interesting, isn't it, the way we keep stumbling into poliitical terrains deranged by technodevelopmental this way? Interesting stuff!

Nato said...

I'm no ethical vegetarian in the animal cruelty sense* but I don't eat land meats if I have a choice, partially because I think meat is economically and ecologically wasteful, and partially because I'm not particularly fond of how they taste or make me feel afterwards. Nonetheless, I definitely welcome lab-grown meat both because my gf likes meat and because I anticipate it being far less wasteful. The animal farming industry, on the other hand, will no doubt sponsor tons of studies suggesting the harmfulness of "unnatural" meat, and I'm sure those suspicious of technology on both the left and right will believe those studies.

*My view on the moral status of animals is complicated. Less complicated is my unease with humans routinely executing creatures that are anthropomorphic enough (to some extent) to constitute a rehearsal of executing humans for expediency's sake.